For 43 years now, the faithful members of Leaf Nation have languished without a Stanley Cup victory to celebrate. Barring an act of God, that streak will stretch to 44 this season, but under the guidance of GM Brian Burke, the franchise finally looks like it could be back on track to at least being a competitor for hockey’s greatest prize, something it hasn’t done since the lockout of 2004-05. So while it might not be as fun as being a Blackhawks fan was last year, this is a good time to be a Leaf fan – and here’s 9 reasons why.
9. Goaltending Depth – While Jonas Gustavsson has seen his development take a step back this season, with another year on his contract, the Monster will have plenty more chances to prove that he’s got what it takes to be a true No. 1 netminder in this league. Aside from Gussie, the emergence of James Reimer has to be a pleasant surprise for Burke and the Leafs. Reimer has been very solid in his NHL debut this season, and will undoubtedly get a shot at the starting role next year. Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens give the Leafs two more options in net, albeit a bit further down the road. With four talented young netminders, chances are at least one of them will emerge as a true talent.
8. Overall Youth – The Leafs are currently the youngest team in the NHL, with an average age under 26 years old. With the departures of Kaberle and Beauchemin, the only player over the age of 30 on the Leafs’ roster is JS Giguere, who probably won’t be with the team after this season. After years of trying to hack it with veterans, these Leafs will be going new school in the upcoming years.
7. The Blueline Pipeline – While much has been made of the amount of salary the Leafs had tied up on their blueline (although $8.05 million has been moved out with Kabby and Beauchemin), the future is bright for the Leafs’ d-corps. Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn will be the anchors of this group for years to come, but there could be plenty of new faces back there in a very short time. Newly acquired Jake Gardiner has shown plenty of promise in the NCAA, while Jesse Blacker and Danny Richmond both could develop into solid puck-movers. Throw in Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson, already getting valuable experience with the big club, and there’s plenty of promise on the back end.
6. Mac ‘N The USSR – Without a doubt, the biggest surprise for the Leafs this year has been Clarke MacArthur. Signed with little fanfare after being passed over by the Sabres and Thrashers, the gritty Alberta native leads the team with 45 points. Close on his heels are linemates Nik Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, who have formed what has easily been Toronto’s most consistent and effective unit all season. If the Leafs can get a bonafide center to play with Kessel and ice a legitimate top line, this could be one of the more dangerous second units in the league.
5. Cap Space – Heading into this upcoming offseason, as it stands now, the Leafs will have well over $20 million in cap space. While a good chunk of that will go into re-signing a number of restricted free agents, they will still be able to throw some significant money at this summer’s free agent class, something they haven’t truly been able to do in quite some time.
4. Draft Picks – A quick rundown of the Leafs’ current draft picks for 2011 – besides holding their own 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th rounders, the Leafs also own two first rounders (Boston, Philly), Philly’s 3rd round pick, Anaheim’s 6th and 7th round picks, and possibly their own 7th, if Aaron Voros is not re-signed. With 9 or 10 picks in the draft, you can be sure that the trade-happy Burke will likely be looking to move a few of these valuable assets and turn them into pieces that will be able to utilized by the team sooner than a drafted prospect.
3. Phil Kessel – The quiet kid from Madison, Wisconsin may be one of the streakiest shooters around, but when he’s on, there’s no denying the talents this kid has. What’s most appealing about the American-born sniper is the fact that he’s just 23 years old. He’s only gonna get better, and if he does, he’ll soon put to rest his plethora of critics.
2. Actual Prospects – When was the last time you were truly excited about a Leaf youth project? Aside from the defensemen already listed, there’s more than a few baby Leafs that have a very good chance at being impact players with the big club. Prior to this week, Nazem Kadri was the top shot that the Leafs had at developing a homegrown top-six forward. Joe Colborne will certainly throw his bucket in that ring, and Jerry D’Amigo will be hoping he can as well.
1. Brian Burke – For all the crap that’s been shoveled his way since taking the reins here in TO, Brian Burke never seems to end up appearing apologetic or back-pedaling. While there’s been no end of criticism for the Phil Kessel deal, and the signings of Komisarek and Beauchemin certainly don’t look like brilliant moves by any stretch of the imagination, Burke’s most recent trades appear to have the Leafs in a position that will allow them to both rebuild and be more and more competitive in the upcoming seasons. While some of the Toronto faithful may have lost their faith in the American GM, I have not.
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Topics: 2011 NHL Draft, Ben Scrivens, Brian Burke, Carl Gunnarsson, Clarke MacArthur, Danny Richmond, Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Jerry D'Amigo, Jesse Blacker, Joe Colborne, Jonas Gustavsson, Jussi Rynnas, Keith Aulie, Leaf Nation, Luke Schenn, Mikhail Grabovski, Nazem Kadri, Niko, Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs, Trades